Like Acosta, Rodriguez is a talented Argentine who arrives in D.C. a few months shy of his 22nd birthday. Both men spent time at Estudiantes, the club Rodriguez arrives from on loan in a deal announced on New Year’s Eve. And both are natural No. 10s who arrived in the nation’s capital with questions surrounding their best role for their new club.
But the Black-and-Red are a considerably different club than when Acosta arrived in 2016, with their globally recognized superstar in Wayne Rooney, sparkling new stadium in Audi Field and heightened expectations across the board.
“I think we are in a better spot,” coach Ben Olsen said after preseason training on Wednesday. “The infrastructure, the roster is better, the players around [Rodriguez] are better than when Lucho first arrived. He also has 100 games in a very tough league, so he might in some ways be further along than Lucho experience-wise when Lucho came.
“Hopefully we can speed that process up to get him where Lucho is currently a little bit quicker.”
Sparked by Rooney’s summer arrival, Acosta enjoyed a breakout 2018 with 10 goals and 17 assists, a year that earned him an MLS Best XI nod and even sparked some MVP chatter. But he had plenty of growing pains in his first two-and-a-half MLS seasons as the club tried to figure out how best to use his talents.
In total, Rodriguez has about 40 more first-team professional games under his belt than when Acosta arrived, and maybe more importantly for his success this season, a reputation for versatility. With it appearing increasingly unlikely that D.C. will bring back Yamil Asad, Rodriguez’s quickest path to Olsen’s starting XI may be on the left side of midfield.
“He’s a different player [than Asad], but he’s had a lot of experience,” said United GM Dave Kasper. “He can play multiple positions across the front line, so he’s a guy that’s going to compete for a lot of time.”
United eventually switched formations midway through the 2016 campaign to accommodate Acosta’s attributes, swapping their 4-4-2 for a 4-1-4-1. More recently, the club have played a 4-2-3-1 with Acosta and Rooney at the top of it.
Olsen suggested Rodriguez may allow his club to alter its tactics more regularly this season, out of want rather than need.
“He’s played the No. 10 quite a bit,” Olsen said. “He can play out wide on the right or left. He prefers the left, and that’s where he spent a significant amount of his wide minutes. But he gives us some tactical flexibility too. We can have another offensive, attack-minded guy and tweak our current style. We’re looking forward to seeing where he fits in.”
While Asad was a relentless, workmanlike player capable of the occasional magical moment, Rodriguez may be more likely to become a third prong of a “Magic Triangle” in attack like D.C. had in their early years with Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce.
At least, that’s his aim.
“Wayne and Lucho were fundamental to the club’s success last year, and as I said before I just hope to be at that level and help bring success to the club,” Rodriguez said through an interpreter. “I’ve played over 100 games at Estudiantes in Argentina. So I think I am ready for this here.”